Wednesday, December 31, 2008

sufficient champagne

To a few people in particular I wish not even so much a happy new year as a moment of blissful relief watching the old one vanish. 2008 played rough and not particularly fair with a number of my own, so to 2008: begone already. Now is the time for a moment of optimism that will dry up in a week, so it really ought to be savored! Me, I've ironed my shirt and practiced my aria (Chaikovsky would really not wish to claim it as his own once I'm done with it) and am ready for the festivities. So if 2008 was a fine year for you, I wish you another, and if it was a horror, join me in thinking of it no more. To everyone, though: rest for the weary, fulfillment, inspiration, health...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Clip Show, or: What day is this?

Well it's the 25th, of course, and Thursday, which means the Times puzzle is a worthy but defeatable opponent. We do try and stay open on the 25th here at MFI, just because nothing else is and we figure if you're one of those who isn't singing odd little songs about playing a drum for an infant (I'm surprised that one hasn't been suppressed in today's climate of petri dish parenting..."Little Skylar/Madison/Jesus isn't allowed to hear percussion. It isn't on the list of sounds that encourage later admission to Dartmouth." See also "Three middle aged guys are here to see my son? Quick, online! To the sex offender registry, hie!") you may well be bored.

Well I can't help with that personally, least not blogwise, as I haven't been to the opera in a fortnight. There is no leftover Chinese from Erev Christmas or I'd offer you some. I'm afraid what this is going to boil down to is me looking for Things You Just Have to See on youtube. I swear there was something I was meaning to show you.

Well, okay, not to totally ruin Christmas (oh, who am I kidding...that's totally what I'm here to do) by plunging you into melancholic reverie:

[If you're clicking around from that clip to related ones, check out Madame Seefried's Bridesmaid of Frankenstein do on her Zueignung.]

You know who I've always associated with Seefried because they were both on my first Figaro is Sena Jurinac.

Well and I guess I'll complete that nostalgic trio with this peculiar little clip.

With that I wish you a happy 25th of December, and a happy 26th after that.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I find this lovely in every way (performance, document, film...)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Different Isn't Always Good

Hello and good riddance to the unconscionable revival of The Seagull, a London import with a fine cast and savagely tone-deaf direction closing at the Walter Kerr soon, but not soon enough.

For once I'm not even looking in the program for the name of the director. The funny thing about Chekhov is you read it and it sounds foolproof, in your head. Apparently, some take this as a challenge. Mr. X's concept announces itself immediately: Medvedenko enters and delivers the first half of one of theater's best-known entrance lines--"Why do you always..." and Masha raises her hand to stop him, and doesn't let him finish ("wear black?") for a moment. I can think of two things that are going on with this, and both of them help to explain how awful this revival is.

#1: Work under the assumption that The Seagull is a boring old play and needs freshening up. Try anything. The worse the better, because worseness is unfamiliar, so it looks like you've done something. Continue this ethos of worseness by finding what is loathesome in every character, despite Chekhov's eternal sympathy for his creations, and amplify it to the point of farce.

#2: Notice that Chekhov's characters often are as unhappy as they are because they're unable to listen to one another. Amplify, again, to the point of farce, but this time from both ends: on the one hand, none of them really hears the others, rarely anyway. On the other, the characters so overbroadcast every emotion (cf: Kristen Scott Thomas' blood curdling scream, really only one shot in a barrage, though between ludicrous outbursts she is almost frustratingly exquisite) that the audience is left with no choice but to laugh at the apparent imbeciles parading before them. Add a laugh track, if desired, because what you have now is a sitcom.

The worst casualty of this approach is the scene where Arkadina changes her son's bandages. Mind, he has already entered with his head bandaged from a suicide attempt, and the audience is so clobbered by the aesthetic of this performance that they find this funny. I don't even think this is the "hey everyone, we paid for this so it'd better be fun" problem I've whined about; I think it was set up this way. Anyway the scene is unbreakably moving, and was so here, except that in the context of what was around it, it felt baffling and unprocessable.

Oh hang on, I'm going to back up. Even before the hijinx with the first line (which Masha, by the way, answers "I'm in mourning for my life," which is exactly where you get to decide whether to present her as an object for ridicule or a tart and often overdramatic character, troubled but basically sympathetic...three guesses how she was presented here) this production did that thing you're hearing a lot if you go to plays much, the sound design that telegraphs seriousness by means of echoes, a drone, and some harmonics. Hello, is this the Moratorium Department? Well, can you please connect me, then?

Konstantin, by the way, is played by Mackenzie Crook, perhaps known to you as Gareth in the original, British "The Office." It was actually an interesting idea, I think, to cast someone who with true genius portrayed one of the most annoying people ever born. Maybe he had some range, a way to make Konstantin worth caring about when the play gives us many chances not to like him--from the brief play within a play, an almost offhanded sketch of well-intentioned dramatic drivel. Or maybe he doesn't.

Most puzzling of all was Peter Sarsgaard, a fine film actor who I am still going to assume has acting chops that will carry over to the stage, but who here seemed to have some deeply complex, outwardly ungraspable idea about who Trigorin is, evidenced by a wandering accent and tortured prosody I've never heard the like of in human speech.

Nina was portrayed by, oh someone. The "let's fix up this old character" concept assigned to her appeared to be that Nina was unhinged from the beginning. I just don't know what to say about this. I guess it's possible, but it's so out of left field I honestly [hey, spoiler alert...stop reading if you don't know how The Seagull ends] wondered if they were going to pull something in the end where Yakov (who was made to lurch around menacingly at times) turns out to have murdered Konstantin, who in fact did not kill himself at all!!!!

Have I ever mentioned Vanya on 42nd Street in these moronic pages? I'm going to now, because it's a fine corrective to what I saw last night. Because the thing is, Chekhov sometimes presents his characters with rather mercurial changes of temperament and motivation, and if you watch the first act of VO42, you will see how this looks when it's done well. Julianne Moore, not an actress I love, works a kind of magic doing this, and it's one of the most magnetic performances I know of. I had to watch an act of it when I got home to reassure myself.

This is not to say that there's only one way to do Chekhov, but I did find myself thinking all 3 hours about what was going wrong. The only major thing I can think of that went right was the pacing...actually in contrast to the production at BAM last season, the one you could only get tickets to when it wasn't Ian McKellan, which is exactly what we did. That production was torpid and inert, though not actively wrong. In this one, the hours flew by like minutes; ah, but what lousy minutes!

Somehow, despite all this, the first half the last act was what Chekhov should be, a shaded, heightened version of a plausible human tableau. Oh and not for nothing, as long as I've spoiled, thanks to the sound team for once for making the shot from the other room a discreet thing. Like Mrs. Parker at Ibsen plays, I practically sit there with my fingers in my ears waiting for the inevitable. After 3 1/2 acts of this, I thought of the story of the world's worst production of the Diary of Anne Frank (you've heard this one. "She's under the stairs!" says an audience member) I wanted to write him a little note, maybe fold it into a paper airplane, about what gauge to use so as to finish the job.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Jesus: 1; Fun: 0

Actually I take back the headline, maybe. Thing is, Thais is one of those things that flips around on you at the last moment. You know, like Dancer in the Dark, where you sit there for two hours going "this is fucking unbearable" until it finally dawns on you that it's a comedy. (Come on, anyone who can watch that little boy hand Bjork his broken glasses without laughing has a heart of stone.)

So that's also kind of true of Thais, yeah. I think so. I spent two and a half acts writhing in my seat at having to watch a pious denunciation of women, sex, living in the world, and having a nice place to live. And then suddenly it's the last scene and Thomas Hampson is jumping around like a puppy going "wait, wait, you can't die! I just realized you're hot!" and Renee Fleming is like "fuck it, you should have said something before you made me burn all my LaCroix. Ta ta, cruel world!" At that point it's so clear that the whole thing is virulently anti-clerical satire that it's hard to be upset.

Still, the Met's production is, it must be admitted, a bit joyless. I think this is actually a production that premiered in Chicago in 2002ish with the same principals, and one would be forgiven for wondering if the physical production showed up wrapped in a bow with a note that said "good luck with the staging!" Direction was not greatly in evidence, the crowd scene at the end of act whatever (tired. deal.) was one of those things where everyone's like "hey, stop her, she's getting away. Shit, there are pages of music left, and there is absolutely nothing to stop me from stopping her myself. Shit." For instance. The design itself is attractive in a dramatically quite generalized way. The "is it the desert or is it a dinosaur sized Ruffles potato chip?" effect is used to much greater effect in Santo Loquasto's Salome set, as my less-dour-than-I companion pointed out...

It seems to me the singing was all about what you'd expect, but a bit routine. Hampson sings this stuff well, if a bit woollily. There didn't seem to be toooo much Captain Kirking around, but it may be because the role is preposterous and impossible to overplay.

TH: So what's my motivation in this scene?
Imaginary absent director: You are a boring fucking zealot. Same as the last scene. And the next one.

His French I am temped to term a bit indistinct, but am also willing to be challenged on that, since my own is hardly expert. As always, he looks like a rollicking lay.

Fleming actually benefits a bit from the same impossible-to-overplay factor, perhaps, but the laugh-wait-sob at the end of Act I pushed the envelope. It's just that stylistically, Thais brings out some of her better tendencies, and this allows the glamor of her portrayal to seem organic rather than painted-on, as it can in some roles. The role goes higher than you think it's going to, and at this point it's not effortless for the big RF, but she doesn't hold back, and for that we're grateful. What came off best for both singers were low key moments like the duet in the desert and Fleming's less glitzy aria, the name of which I'm not going to google right now. Michael Schade assisted ably, but honestly I like his voice a lot more in Mozart, you know?

Someone is going to have to tell you about the fashion part, and it is not going to be me.

Think that's going to have to wrap it up, as it is late late late. Still intending to write about Tristan, and possibly the Sondheim show at the Public. (The one where the cub gets the twink, clearly a work of astringent realism...)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Remember that time I used to write opera reviews?

Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Mycenaean way, why is it that Elektra is so much better than anything else that happens, musical or otherwise. Sometimes, while I'm being all Hellenically inquisitive about things, I also wonder why the MTA would choose to piss on my evening by skipping three stops without announcing it. Me, if I were a subway conductor instead of a rage-obsessed daughter of a murdered king, I would announce that kind of thing. But then I don't run the subway or drive a train. Ah, you'll be thinking, but you also never saved an axe for years and years so you could murder your immediate family with it. Well, maybe, maybe not. On the internet, nobody knows you're an Argosian princess, as the old cartoon says.

It's not as if I'm home late, anyway. Elektra is an hour and three quarters soaking wet, and actually I know this from recent experience because that's about what it clocked in at with Lorin Maazel really laying it the fuck on. I heard (and failed to get) a joke about Lorin Maazel and a fan in an elevator, but we'll leave that for the second set, when the act goes blue, because even I can't find the relevance.

Anyway like a Berlinian hedgehog of conducting, Maazel made One Big Choice, and that was to lead everything at a lumbering pace that almost never varied. It wasn't unnuanced if I'm making it sound like that; on the contrary there were places where the breadth of things gave Strauss' grotesque little filigrees (like the tootling around before the big orchestral freak-out that begins Elektra's monologue...insert maybe apocryphal thing about Strauss/Mendelssohn/"fairy music") room to introduce themselves properly, in case you hadn't met. And, somewhat to my surprise, it made Klytamnestra's "oh shit, here she comes" music extraordinarily menacing rather than dulling its impact.

What it did do, however, was underline the few longeurs the score does have, like when they opened out the "Penthouse Forum" cut ("Dear Penthouse Forum: This one time, I told my sister how slim and supple her hips were, and then we had a pillow fight and killed our entire family.") it came to feel like a bit of a shaggy dog story, despite the fact it's really not that long. What else it did is throw some nasty demands the way of the singers. Not only did Chrysothemis' waltz lose its giddy despair, but Anne Schwanewilms had to yelp out a couple of top notes, notes that turned out to be pretty workable later on when she got to approach them a little more favorably.

Schwanewilms, truth to tell, was overparted, but a good way? It's like how Lisa della Casa is the more moving (with Mitropoulos, you know, on record) because she sounds a bit out of her depth, as is her character. She's a good actress, insofar as you can tell in concert, though she doesn't enter right after the double bar howling like a wounded animal, but you know who the hell does?

Jane Henschel, sorta. You remember that one Halloween we sat in the house playing Jean Madeira's hideous cackle from the Bohm recording? Oh, wait, you weren't there. You'll have to take my word for it. It's a highlight of the history of studio recordings, though, right? And her screams: also first rate. You basically don't get to hear that live. It just gets lost, if the mezzo in question does it at all.

The one time I actually had tears in my eyes during this performance, though, was at Jane Henschel's exit, because she made the most unhinged, embarrassing sounds. It was perfection. As were her screams, maybe--one was thrown momentarily off one's critical moorings by the fact that this effect came from up in the balcony. Actually it was fun to watch the lady in front of me keep looking nervously up there ever after, in case there might be more Murders in the Mezzanine.

Weird thing is, Henschel started off with no promise of what was to come. A few things I have always assumed Klytamnestren live for were thrown away like they didn't matter, most notably the line "sie redet wie ein Artzt" in which you just get to sound like an absolute car horn if you feel like it. There was another that baffled me, I think in the part about...uh....well the part that an online translator tells me goes like this:

I wish from my soul all hull
and replace the fan gentle air,
from where it will come up, admit as
the sick do if they cool the air,
Sitting on ponds, evening their bumps
and all their Eiterndes the cool air
disclose the evening, and nothing raquel think
as a relief to create.

Yessiree. I think you're supposed to replace the fan after 10,000 miles right? Or is that the air filter? But so then you get to "Darum bin ich so behangt mit Steinen" [Therefore, I hang out with Gloria Steinem] and all hell breaks loose, with the chest voice, and the basically growling, and my favorite line, the one about zefressen von den Motten, where everyone gets to pretend they're Martha Modl. Well that was all fine and dreadful. No complaints here. For fun, she is two feet shorter than her stage daughter, which adds some kind of dynamic I can't put my finger on.

Actually it was at the moment of the death screams that I remembered something. Which is that riiiight about when I was flirting with maybe liking Not Always Pretty Music, but not yet, I heard a broadcast of Elektra, and thought in that way that romantic comedy heroes and heroins hate one another when they meet: that is some nasty, fucked up shit. This was 1991, I think. Who knows, could even have been Polaski.

Polaski, you see, has been singing the role for goddamn ever. And the natural conclusions you will reach, correctly, are 1) that she is in some ways out of voice, and 2) that she probably knows what the hell to do about it because this is far from her first time at the rodeo. There are places where the sound is very, very frayed, but someone must have told her at some point that if you rev the engine a certain way, nobody will notice you're driving a rusty Pinto.

Here's what she uses: volume you can't argue with, a trick of crooning higher stuff for a second before slamming into it (a kind of "fake it 'til you make it" approach that loud German opera can be pretty forgiving of) and a knowledge of the score that lets her know where she can coast because you're not going to hear her no matter what. Oh and of course rock solid conviction, that thing that comes from within that nobody can teach you. She happens to have that. And it means she doesn't have to move around as much as she otherwise might have to, and that you think you can see her facial expressions even when you're in row KK. (One row behind practically everyone you know. Didn't it seem tout let tout was there? Maybe just my tout.)

Smaller roles (sorry to skip Orest...good voice, not a role I feel I can size a singer up in) were uniformly well cast. All I can think to comment on as I fade off to bed here is Janice Meyerson's pointy German diction, the generous yelling of Richard "I sang Bacchus at the Met really recently" Margison in a bit of luxury casting, just...everyone was good, ok? Hell, even the audience was good, very into it except for the few oldsters that clomped out upon discovering that, as my friend up on row JJ put it, Elektra sounds way different from his earlier work like The Blue Danube.

Potentially a lot coming up to blather about. Tristan for sure, Don G at some point, crazyweird concert at BAM I may or may not write about, Thais...